BWW Review: KING JOHN at Praxis Stage
I was very nervous about Praxis Stage's production of King John. Part of what I loved so much about their last show was how naughty and anti it felt- anti establishment, anti major nonprofits, anti commercial theatre. It was in a gym in Dorchester with clamp lights duct taped to the walls and probably violations of every fire code in the book. You can read my review of that production to see how much I loved it all. It seems like, somewhere in the past half of a century, theatre, which from its inception has naughtily merged many art forms and situated itself amongst undesirable festivals, spectacles, bear fights, and prostitution, decided it wanted to be serious. The powers that be built up 'regional theatres', fortresses of exclusivity in every major city in the Western World that would allow 'serious theatre' (which holds playwright as unquestionable authority over all else and subjects its audiences to hours of listening to words) to exist in its own inaccessible culture, just as ballet and opera have since their inceptions. These fortresses have effectively shut out the buskers, sex workers, strippers, clowns, and freaks who established this art form in the United States and carried it as a popular form of entertainment for decades. Now, the theatre realizes it wants them back. It wants to be 'cool' and 'edgy' and 'punk'. But, when you aren't willing to break any rules, all you get is an imitation of 'cool' (which is definitely not cool).
Unlike Coriolanus, this production was being staged in a rehearsal room at the Boston Center for the Arts (way less cool). Add on top of this my limited familiarity with this piece (I've read King John but never seen it performed), a roster of very conventionally-seasoned actors (where the Coriolanus bios were riddled with dynamic words like 'teacher', 'poet', and 'student', these actors wielded more standard words like 'Boston University', 'Emerson', and 'Huntington'), and the fact that I foolishly agreed to review a two and a half hour show on a night when I was returning from a trip and jet-lagged to boot, I was dreading the review I felt sneakily suspicious that I was going to need to write.
Although director Kimberly Gaughan's bio lists very few directing projects and even fewer Shakespearean works (she mentions having assistant directed a production of Romeo and Juliet, but I didn't catch anything else), she boasts an impressive mix of work as an actor, movement educator, and practitioner of Japanese Noh (a traditional form of theatre). Because of this varied, individualized background and unique expertise, she has created a Shakespearean drama that kept me entirely engaged for its duration, was visually stimulating despite a technically simple set, and has intrigued me to ensure never to miss a piece she directs in the future. The staging is simple and smart. Golden furniture and a cast clad in gold, black, green, and purple seem to convey status, place, and dynamic effectively. Gaughan has created a dumb show at the top of the piece in addition to stylized stagings of battles, weddings, and scene changes which suggest the work of Frantic Assembly or a piece directed by Marianne Elliott (the whole thing could've been passed off as a piece directed by Marianne Elliott). While many of these sequences lasted a touch too long, and it wasn't until an underscored monologue from Constance that they really became fused with the narrative as opposed to being disjointed and abrupt, the use of human bodies for storytelling is captivating and the use of space is inventive. Perhaps all Shakespearean directors should study Noh, as this narrative was clearly, comprehensibly, visually communicated in a way that brought the text to a point of easy accessibility. The other praise for Gaughan is that, the show never takes itself too seriously. We hear Doris Day crooning "keep smiling, keep laughing, be happy" and then a calypso cover of Lorde's 'Royals' as actors cross the stage with crudely-painted signs denoting locales and enter with all manner of silly costumes, wigs, and props. None of this takes away from the essence of the play, and in fact, the staunch juxtaposition seems to make the tragedy more tragic.
Why isn't this show an impersonation of cool even if it falls into some trappings of the dreaded 'regional theatre' scene? I think it's because Praxis Stage is, at its heart, genuinely concerned with the prospects of theatre that every other theatre in this city needs to purport to care about in order to get covered by the Boston Globe and nominated for Elliott Norton Awards. Every facet of the performance seems to be manufactured with an average audience member in mind, and the results are refreshingly un-pretentious. Just as with Coriolanus, I advise any theatre artist who works at one of Boston's theatres with cloudy-dishwater mission statements and haphazardly 'diverse' offerings to engage with Praxis Stage. Even when renting the BCA, their ticket prices are less than $20. For a show of this caliber, thought through down to the details, that's cool enough for me.
There is thought among scholars that King John was written by Shakespeare after losing his son, Hamnet. Indeed, the text seems infatuated with the uncertainties of lineage and legacy as well as with the immense toll that grief can have on someone. No doubt thanks to Gaughan's direction, but also thanks to a particularly strong female cast, Praxis' production seems to highlight how women navigate their relationships with the men around them to leverage power in a patriarchal society. Memorable scenes feature Constance, who later claims that as a woman she is "naturally born to fears" and Lady Blanche kneeling down and begging the Dauphin to hear their individual perspectives on impending war. Certainly this image of kneeling and pleading resonates with anyone who has felt oppressed and seems equally as poignant in this production as the more oft-discussed Shakespearean scenes in which Paulina implores the king to spare his daughter's life or Emilia admonishes Othello for suffocating her mistress. Poornima Kirby is haunting as Constance, truly one of the hidden gems of Boston's theatre scene. Anyone who remembers her resolute Ophelia at Actors' Shakespeare Project a few seasons ago will appreciate how differently her Constance manifests overwhelming grief.
"I am not mad/
I would that I were..."
she croaks, crouching on a golden table. There is a sombre weight that Kirby seems to drag through her Constance, which simultaneously seems to limit her while also giving her a power in stillness and grounded-ness. Jane Reagan's Lady Blanche has a dry wit. Her face tells us how she feels about her arranged marriage beyond what Shakespeare's text suggests.
Another resonant moment sees Praxis' artistic director, Daniel Boudreau sneering as a peasant from Angiers from atop the city's walls. How fitting for a poor character to loudly beg his leaders not to engage in a war that will have more consequences for him than for them. Boudreau serves overtime in this production, also playing the ridiculous Austria, clad in a leather jacket and Mink Stole who warns an enraged Constance,
"Oh that a man would speak those words to me!"
Perhaps, most memorably, he transforms himself in full view of the audience (my favorite part of the whole show was watching him undergo this transformation as horror movie music seemed to foretell of his arrival) into Cardinal Pandulf of Milan, an emissary from the Pope who is described appropriately in the program as, "a malignantly corrupt cardinal (...) with a beef against England." Boudreau's Pandulf is the snobby, callous kind of villain who it is incredibly cathartic to be able to hate. As is his way, every word uttered by Boudreau matters and he takes pains ensuring that all present are able to engage with him.
Clad in a metallic gold suit and glittery hightops, Michael Underhill's King John looks to be nothing more than a quarterback crowned prom king. Gaughan's director's note explains that a major theme throughout the play is how characters grapple with "the responsibilities of their births and the responsibilities of their morality." None seem to embody this theme more consistently than the titular character. As a young king recently coronated, Underhill is masterfully dynamic, seeming to age over the course of a few hours, and successfully navigating the antagonistic implications of a deceptively pitiful hero. In discussion with Praxis' Coriolanus, Underhill introduces complexity to a season which seems to examine, in two female-directed productions, how women navigate misogyny in the context of war. Underhill's king shows the ways in which the fragile male ego, a major political disadvantage in both plays, is an equal impediment to those who enforce and enact its continuity as it is to its more immediate victims. His relationship with his mother, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, is difficult to watch thanks to the palpable chemistry between he and Mary Potts Dennis' Queen. The structure of a young son holding political sway over his aging mother is captivating and opaquely corrupt.
Despite an overwhelmingly excellent cast, some younger actors, Annalise Cain as The Bastard and David Picariello in multiple roles, seem to intone learned vocal shifts that have been abruptly placed on distinct beats in the text, but are channeled in an unsupported way through unaffected bodies. Both performances feel as though they have been heavily coached and do not get beneath the surface of the actions like the more established actors do.
Additionally, although the snapshots of dance throughout the performance are cinematic and moments of underscoring can seem zany, the production suffers from the syndrome of Shakespeare's histories. When theatres stage The Tempest or A Midsummer Night's Dream, twinkle lights and fairy wings abound. Special effects are invested in for staging Macbeth or Hamlet. Because magic is so prevalent in these plays, it feels as though it must be addressed. However, we must remember that, for Shakespeare, witches, spirits, and fairies were not fantasies, but possibilities-- if not realities. Oftentimes the history plays, which contain instances of magic and prophecy, seem to disregard the surrealism of the text in favor of a more noble, 'authentic' aesthetic. When King John traipses into madness, brought on by a series of prophetic announcements and a bizarre happening with the moon, the text takes a trip through the supernatural, but this production does not follow suit, instead remaining stagnant within a pre-established world uninterrupted by dreams. This discrepancy left the sequence muddied and forgettable.
Above all, the production is successful in that it tells a rarely-staged story effectively, maintains Praxis Stage's heart even in the bougie Back Bay area, and gives audiences a taste of Kimberly Gaughan's distinctive style, a style I hope to see more of in Boston very soon.
King John runs through February 16 at the Boston Center for the Arts. More info here.